Tel: 905–690–4709 dk@tfwm.com - Darryl Kirkland, Publisher

The Digital/Analog Debate

by Bryan Cole

Focusrite_Console_02-300x199I almost titled this “sparring with signal path…”  The sides of this debate are both pretty set in their views, and much like sports rivals, the viewpoints expressed by each side can be, shall we say, very impassioned!

In my world, I almost exclusively place digital consoles, due to the amount of processing and routing that is available at the digital price point. We are now seeing small format digital consoles selling at the cost of their analog brethren – and since I’m always searching for value, Digital often shows up as the value leader. Value takes so many things into account; Price, usability, durability, sonic quality, environment, etc. If you choose one of those things and make it the supreme goal, you may very well come out with an all analog signal chain as a requirement – it’s not always a “cut and dry” sonic decision.

Interestingly, I had no desire to write an article of this nature, until recently. Many weightier people than my humble self have chimed in on the subject, and it seemed that “’nuff said” was the status of writing on the issue. Just do a quick Google of “audio analog vs digital debate” and you will see for yourself that there are many articles on both sides of the issue, and even some that call it a draw. But then I watched a youtube video on the history of the Focusrite Studio Console, and my mind began to stir. The piece is about one of the last (and very highly regarded) ‘Large Format” analog recording desks made by the then young Focusrite. There are only 10 (or so, depending on how you rate condition) of these consoles in existence. It was a no-holds-barred approach to the analog mixing workflow in place in studios in the late ‘80s. Life, as my father used to say, “is often a timing problem,” and such was the short life and small production run of the Focusrite Studio Console – an analog console introduced about when the digital “hard disk” recording workflow was gaining popularity. The video is a great piece, celebrating a console that represented (to many) the pinnacle of analog audio achievement as well as the nostalgic air that often surrounds older analog gear.

As I watched the video, and observed the great effort (and expense) being put fourth by a few passionate organizations to keep these consoles alive, I began to understand more of my own philosophy on the analog/digital issue, and gained even more clarity on what the debate is, and what it is not. It is from that position that I would like to present an alternative perspective from which to consider the appropriateness of analog or digital.

There is definitely something to be said for an all-analog signal chain – where digital can be said to offer a very true representation of the input signal (the digital world even starts with analog,) analog is often described with terms like “warm,” and “fat.” These terms are often in reference to the coloration added by the signal chain, not always referencing the faithful reproduction of the input signal. In fact, much of the digital effects industry today builds plugins that simulate the character of analog equipment. And if you’ve ever experienced someone playing an acoustic guitar in a beautifully reverberant space, you can attest to the fact that there’s just no replacement for that big shiny room. Ironically, some of the first digital effects were reverb and delay units – and I venture to guess that those were created in an attempt to make very large plate reverb walls easier to transport! And that hints at my case for digital as well.

In fact, if I were to attempt to re-create all of the capabilities of even the most modest medium format digital console in the analog domain, I would have quite a few racks of “outboard” devices, that would take up space several factors larger than it’s digital brethren, and even the console itself would be much larger to match channel counts. In addition, the amount of copper that would be required to interconnect all of that gear would be many thousands of dollars at today’s copper value. I realize that in the real world, we don’t necessarily need all of that gear, but the fact that the functionality exists on every channel on the digital machine, means a lot for usability – if you need it, it’s there – no physical re-patching needed (and this forms my second reason for choosing digital in my world.) The funny part is, unless I build room-sized plate reverbs, and build very expensive acoustically engineered rooms just to capture the ambiance when needed, then I’m still dependent on digital outboard gear, for reverb, delay, etc.

In the end it would most likely be a very nice console, with gobs of “warmth” and character. All of the colorations we would desire to build a beautiful mix would already be there – most of which we would have to add back into our digital console in the form of plugins to gain a similar experience…
… And it would cost a small fortune. I mean probably 5x – 10x the cost of the medium format digital, when we consider the full installation cost. And therein lies the reason I almost exclusively install digital consoles in my world. Yes there are other factors like usability, and digital conveniences (snapshots and recallable show files,) ease of use, availability of processing on every channel, and even compactness, that I feel add tremendously to the organizations I support. But the main factor by far is cost. If you keep audio folklore and severe brand loyalty out of the decision process, a medium format digital console with digital stage snake, and more capability than most will ever need, is currently south of $10,000.

Then there’s other little factors, like quality of the PA, quality of the acoustic treatments in the venue (or lack thereof) and the skill-level of the often volunteer operators. Those factors combined with the economics, and it’s a hands-down win for digital for me. It would be even if just for the economic win – since in my value equation, pure sonic character is not the end goal – and many times, economics is the main driving factor. This thought process is what has given birth to a phrase you will often hear me repeat – “‘excellence’ and ‘good enough’ can coexist.” Many of us have heard the very expensive boutique audio system installation, that the staff that runs it does not have the skill level or experience to operate at a high level, and thus all of the character that was designed into the system is lost. Similar to that rust bucket car that just drove by you on the road, that has one foot in the grave, but has a beautiful set of $2500 wheels and tires on it. I think you get the idea.

For me, it all condenses down to the task – and tasks always start with People – their passions and skill level. A good electric guitar player picks up the $99 junior Strat from the department store, and makes it sing. Unfortunately, many of us know musicians that have spent thousands on gear to build the perfect rig – with sonic nirvana usually only one piece of boutique equipment away (in their mind.) I have been known to take organizations through the process of “downgrading” from a higher end console to a “lesser” unit because at the end of the day, their volunteer sound team is able to build a better resulting product with the lesser system, due to simplicity of operation.

Ultimately, you and your organization will need to decide for yourself. For me, the boutique analog serves an amazing purpose in high end recording studios, where it is operated and maintained by seasoned professionals that really know how to use the character and color that it provides to the audio signal properly. I firmly believe that there’s a place for analog, and a place for digital. Evaluate your circumstances carefully, and shy away from thinking that the experience you want to deliver to your congregation is a piece of gear away. Make sure what you’ve got is setup properly, and that your teams are well versed in proper operation. If either one of those things is not up to the mark, then focus your energies on that first. While the gear selection is important, you must also consider the capability of those that will be operating your system. And then there’s that budget thing….

And the next time you listen to that amazing, warm, fat sound on a classic or modern recording, thank the pioneers who are keeping all of that amazing analog gear – that’s just too expensive to recreate – alive, so that we can all enjoy the end experience.

 

Bryan Cole, and his company, Axia Concepts, provides technology consulting service in the areas of audio, video, lighting, LED walls and general Information Technology.  Bryan enjoys bringing tailor-made solutions often only found in mega churches to the local church, partnering with church staff and volunteers to create ownership and knowledge transfer throughout the entire process. Check out his blog at www.axiaconcepts.com/category/blog/
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